Why Chris Paul Is the Key to LeBron James' Potential 2014 Free-Agency Bid

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Why Chris Paul Is the Key to LeBron James' Potential 2014 Free-Agency Bid
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Lost in the hoopla surrounding speculation over the possibility that LeBron James might ditch the Miami Heat for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014—a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma—was this tidbit from the "report" filed by ESPN's Brian Windhorst on Thursday:

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Chris Paul, LeBron's best friend in the NBA. James has wanted to team up with CP3 for seven years or more. In 2005, when Paul was about to be drafted, James asked the Cavs to attempt to move up to get Paul, but the Cavs did not have the assets to pull off such a trade.

Paul and James have only grown closer since, playing together on Team USA four times since 2006 and winning gold medals in 2008 and last summer. Paul will be a free agent in 2013, and his situation could influence James' plans a year later.

LeBron, it seems, is buddy-buddy with CP3, perhaps even more so than he was with Dwyane Wade (and, to a lesser extent, Chris Bosh) prior to the summer of 2010. James has never played with a great point guard before, though that may have as much to do with how his teams have viewed his abilities as a floor general more than anything else.

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And please, don't give me any "Mo Williams was an All-Star" guff. Williams had some good years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but was an All-Star in 2009 in large part because he played with LeBron...and because Jameer Nelson and Chris Bosh got hurt.

But I digress. The point is, LeBron's never enjoyed the privilege of playing on a team with which he wouldn't have to do all the work on the ball for the operation to run smoothly. Kobe Bryant is set to experience a similar lightness of being, unbearable or otherwise, with Steve Nash by his side this season.

The problem for LeBron? He and Paul won't be free agents at the same time. Chris' contract with the Clippers expires after the 2012-13 season, while LeBron can't opt out of his deal with the Heat until 2014.

As such, there can be no "Superstar Summit" at which LeBron and CP3 sit with the Five Families of Free Agency and divvy up territory accordingly. Perhaps a mini-meeting in private between the two over a bacon-wrapped filet would do.

The real planning would still be left up to the teams themselves. At present, there are only a handful of organizations that can so much as entertain the thought of pairing LeBron and Chris Paul.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The most obvious choice is the Atlanta Hawks. Barring any catastrophic shift in the league's landscape, the Hawks will head into the summer of 2013 with the smallest salary commitment of any team in the NBA—a shade over $21.5 million for 2013-14, according to Basketball Reference—thanks in no small part to the blockbuster trade that landed Joe Johnson with the Brooklyn Nets.

As ESPN's John Hollinger pointed out in July, this leaves Hawks GM Danny Ferry with enough financial flexibility to ostensibly lure Paul and Dwight Howard to the ATL and re-sign Josh Smith, who's also due to hit free agency after the season. Dwight and J-Smoove are close friends and both Atlanta natives, while Paul allegedly wanted to play for the Hawks when he left Wake Forest in 2005.

That being said, pulling off such a stunning coup would be anything but a guarantee for the Hawks. They'd probably have to find some way to move Al Horford, an All-Star in his own right, and (more importantly) they'd have to convince not one but TWO superstars to ditch winning situations in LA.

And though Howard was born and raised in the Dirtiest of the Dirty, he's called the City of Angels home for some time now. He'd be hard-pressed to leave the stacked Lakers behind, especially if they lend Dwight his first taste of championship glory this season.

And, well, because they can offer him more money than anyone else.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The same goes for Paul with the Clippers, as far as money is concerned, though winning could be an issue. To be sure, this year's edition of the Clips may be the most talented the franchise has ever seen, with a deep bench to go along with a pair of superstars (Paul and Blake Griffin) in the starting lineup.

But the paths of glory at Paul's feet in the West are all filled with worrisome pitfalls. As good as the Clippers may be, they could wind up no better than fifth or sixth in the Western Conference playoff picture, with the Lakers, the Thunder, the Spurs, the Nuggets and the Grizzlies among the bevy of teams bound to jockey for position.

As competitive as Chris Paul may be, he's no dummy. He'll be 28 by the time July of 2013 rolls around, and at his age and with his bad knees, he'll only have so many opportunities to contend for a title. 

A move to Atlanta would leave but one true challenger in Chris' way in the Eastern Conference. And if the Hawks were to conserve cap space and fill their roster with one-year stopgaps next summer, a la the Dallas Mavericks this year, they could vault into the penthouse in the East by pilfering LeBron from the Heat.

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Speaking of the Mavs, they'd have a shot, albeit an outside one, at being back-to-back champs of free agency in 2013 and 2014. They're currently on the hook for just north of $45 million in salaries for 2013-14, meaning that they'll only have about $13 million in cap space with which to entice CP3.

However, if OJ Mayo fares well in Big D this season, he'll likely opt out of the second year of his deal. The Mavs could also choose to part ways with Dominique Jones, who has a team option for 2013-14.

Wipe those two off the books, and Dallas will have nearly $20 million in cap space at its disposal—enough to offer Chris the max, or at least something close to it.

Once Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter hit free agency in 2014, Mavs GM Donnie Nelson will have upwards of $30 million of cap space into which to fit another max player like, say, LeBron.

Who knows? Maybe Dirk would re-up at a discount. Maybe some other veteran stars would take pay cuts to play with LeBron and CP3 in the Metroplex.

Or, maybe the Houston Rockets will be in the mix. Their commitments for 2013-14 currently total $35.38 million and could be less if GM Daryl Morey declines options on Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris and/or JaJuan Johnson. The Rockets will have another six youngsters with team options eligible for the chopping block in the summer of 2014, along with the tradable contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The problem for Houston, aside from already having a well-paid point guard in Lin, is one of competitiveness. Even if the Rockets were to land one of the top picks in the (decidedly weak) 2013 NBA draft, they still wouldn't have much in the way of a winning team to lure Paul to their neck of the woods.

Chances are, Chris would be loath to return to a situation near the Gulf of Mexico wherein he'd have to carry a team to the playoffs. After all, he agitated rather publicly to extricate himself from New Orleans just last December.

The Cavs will have the cap room to sign CP3 and lure LeBron, though at this point, they'd be foolish to give up Kyrie Irving, a budding star in his own right, which they'd probably have to do to make such an arrangement feasible. The Philadelphia 76ers could ostensibly make it work, with $36 million committed to 2013-14 and a mere $17.1 million to 2014-15, but such would likely require that they part ways with Andrew Bynum and Jrue Holiday this summer.

As for the Utah Jazz, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Detroit Pistons...yeah, that's not happening.

Don't sleep on the Clippers. They can offer Paul more money than anyone this summer along with the comforts of an organization with which he's intimately familiar and a team that can contend in the West, deep as the field may be. Come 2014, the Clips will see upwards of $12 million in cap room flow into their coffers and could clear out even more if they find a way to move DeAndre Jordan, whose contract is set to expire in 2015. 

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The Clippers were one of a handful of teams that put together a presentation for LeBron in 2010. But at the time, they were nothing more than the NBA's perennial cellar dwellers, with only an on-the-mend Blake Griffin, the promise of Eric Gordon, the solid post play of Chris Kaman, the sharp decline of Baron Davis and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to offer.

By 2014, the Clips may well be a team (if not THE team) to beat in the West. CP3 will be in his prime, Griffin could be a perennial MVP candidate and the rest of the roster will be ripe for reshaping.

Still, attempting to predict whether and how the facts and figures will affect the futures of Chris Paul and LeBron James in consecutive summers is, by and large, a futile endeavor. Both have plenty with which to concern themselves before they can so much as turn their attention toward their respective futures as free agents.

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LeBron, for his part, may or may not opt out of his contract in 2014. Such does seem likely, if only so he can re-sign for more years at something more substantial than the below-market rate at which he first joined the Heat. As he told ESPN's Michael Wallace after Miami's preseason win over the Pistons on Thursday:

I'm here, and this is what it's all about. I'm preparing for this season, preparing to defend our title and that's it. This is where ... I'm here now.

Indeed, the best player in the game has bigger fish to fry—a title defense (or two)—than those that could be swimming downstream in two seasons' time.

In the meantime, James understands as well as anyone how easily a "story" like the one Windhorst turned out—based on the speculative musings of anonymous NBA executives—could stir up the media circus:

Guys are making stories every day. It doesn't matter to me. I'm true to my teammates. I'm here and this is what it's all about -- us building and trying to get better as a team. Anyone can write a story. If you have ESPN, then it becomes credible. So do what you've got to do.

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